Dr. Gretchen McKay—Art History Professor
Dr. Gretchen McKay, professor of Art History at McDaniel College, visited our class in September and explained how several important pieces of art portray both desirable women, a marriage, and a romantic relationship., suggesting the stages of romantic love. The images below are arranged chronologically.
The Woman of Willendorf (24,000–22,000 B.C.E.)
Source: Photo by Don Hitchcock, 2008.
Originally known as The Venus of Willendorf, this 4-inch-tall statue dates to around 24,000–22,000 B.C.E. and is the first example in art history of beauty or love. The figure’s large breasts and vagina are among the first things you notice, bringing attention to the fact that she is a woman and indicating fertility and abundance. This statue was most likely worn as an amulet around the neck (McKay).
Aphrodite of Knidos (350 B.C.E.)
This sculpture of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, was found on the island of Knidos and dates to around 350 B.C.E. It was created by Praxiteles, a Greek sculptor in the late-classical period. In this sculpture, Aphrodite takes off her robe, preparing to take a bath. She is in a contrapposto stance, “an Italian term for a relaxed, natural” position (McKay).
The Birth of Venus (1486)
The Birth of Venus is a 1486 Italian Renaissance painting done by Sandro Botticelli. Despite the title, it is actually a painting portraying the birth of Aphrodite. This “painting is about beauty in the form of a nude woman—for meditative purposes. The woman represents love and beauty, not nudity for nudity’s sake” (McKay). The painting represents the philosophy of Neo-Platonism, “a way of merging Christian principles with Greek philosophy” (McKay).
Marriage à-la-mode (1743–1745)
Marriage à-la-mode is a series of six paintings created by William Hogarth between 1743 and 1745. Dr. McKay explained that the “whole series is a satire against the aristocracy” and “makes fun of arranged marriage.” For example, the second painting in the series depicts the wife relaxing, leaning back in her chair, her husband sitting close by in a drunken stupor. The “wife is not living up to higher class standards” (McKay). She is supposed to be in charge of the servants, but in the background you can see the servant fooling around. The husband is behaving no better, and apparently has spent the night out with a lady other than his wife, as evident by the lady’s cap in his coat pocket. Prints of these paintings made this art available to the the middle class (McKay).
The Swing (1767)
The Swing is a 1767 painting by Jean-Honoré Fragonard that depicts a young girl in an elaborate, pink dress being pushed on a swing by an older man, while her lover sits at the bottom of the swing looking up her skirt. According to Dr. McKay, this painting depicts the “imminence of sex,” as indicated by the young girl and boy and the “luscious trees” that surround them. The girl and boy are deceiving the girl’s chaperone (the man pushing her), who believes that she is innocently swinging. Dr. Pam Regis also pointed out that a shoe can be seen as a symbol of a woman’s “sexual vessel.” The girl in this painting is kicking off her shoe, also indicating the imminence of sex. Like Hogarth’s Marriage à-la-mode, this work by Fragonard is also a satire of the upper class (McKay).
McKay, Gretchen. McDaniel College. McDaniel College Campus, Westminster, MD. 19 Sept. 2013. Lecture.